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The Actantial Model

By Louis Hébert

Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski

louis_hebert@uqar.ca

1. ABSTRACT

Greimas

Algirdas Julien Greimas

The actantial model, developed by A.J. Greimas, allows us to break an action down into six facets, or actants: (1) The subject (for example, the Prince) is what wants or does not want to be joined to (2) an object (the rescued Princess, for example). (3) The sender (for example, the King) is what instigates the action, while the (4) receiver (for example, the King, the Princess, the Prince) is what benefits from it. Lastly, (5) a helper (for example, the magic sword, the horse, the Prince's courage) helps to accomplish the action, while (6) an opponent (the witch, the dragon, the Prince's fatigue or a suspicion of terror) hinders it.

This text can be found in extended version in this book:
Louis Hébert, Dispositifs pour l'analyse des textes et des images, Limoges, Presses de l'Université de Limoges, 2007.

Click here to obtain the English translation of this book.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Louis Hébert (2006), « The Actantial Model », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec), http://www.signosemio.com/greimas/actantial-model.asp.

2.THEORY

2.1 ORIGINS AND FUNCTION

During the sixties, A. J. Greimas (1966, 174-185 and 192-212) proposed the actantial model, which is based on Propp's theories (1970). The actantial model is a device that can theoretically be used to analyse any real or thematized action, but particularly those depicted in literary texts or images. In the actantial model, an action may be broken down into six components, called actants. Actantial analysis consists of assigning each element of the action being described to the various actantial classes.

2.2 SIX ACTANTS AND THREE AXES

The six actants are divided into three oppositions, each of which forms an axis of the description:

  • The axis of desire: (1) subject / (2) object. The subject is what is directed toward an object. The relationship established between the subject and the object is called a junction, and can be further classified as a conjunction (for example, the Prince wants the Princess) or a disjunction (for example, a murderer succeeds in getting rid of his victim's body).
  • The axis of power: (3) helper / (4) opponent. The helper assists in achieving the desired junction between the subject and object; the opponent hinders the same (for example, the sword, the horse, courage, and the wise man help the Prince; the witch, the dragon, the far-off castle, and fear hinder him).
  • The axis of transmission (the axis of knowledge, according to Greimas): (5) sender / (6) receiver. The sender is the element requesting the establishment of the junction between subject and object (for example, the King asks the Prince to rescue the Princess). The receiver is the element for which the quest is being undertaken. To simplify, let us interpret the receiver (or positive receiver) as that which benefits from achieving the junction between subject and object (for example, the King, the kingdom, the Princess, the Prince, etc.). Sender elements are often receiver elements as well.

NOTE: SENDER AND HELPER

Traditionally, the sender is considered to be that which initiates the action; if something else intervenes along the way to stir up desire for the junction to be achieved, this actant will be assigned to the helper class instead (the same reasoning applies to anti-sender and opponents). This problem - where position in a narrative sequence and function in this sequence are mixed up - has been worked out in the canonical narrative schema, Greimas' subsequent model that is more developed than the actantial model. In this model, the sender (more accurately called the sender-manipulator) has been redefined as that which prompts the action by manipulating either wanting-to-do or having-to-do, or both.

2.3 SETS OF ACTANTIAL MODELS

In theory, any real or thematized action ("imaginary" action) may be described by at least one actantial model. Strictly speaking, the actantial model for a text does not exist. For one thing, there are as many models as there are actions; for another, the same action can often be seen from several different perspectives (for example, from the subject's point of view, or his rival's, the anti-subject's).

Although one generally chooses the action that best summarizes the text, or lacking that, some key action, there is no rule against analysing a group or a set of actantial models. A set involves at least two actantial models with at least one relationship established between them. Relationships may be temporal (complete or partial simultaneity, immediate or delayed succession) and/or logical (presuppositional (for example, cause and effect), mutual exclusion (between incompatible actions), etc.).

2.4 VISUAL REPRESENTATIONS

Technically speaking, we need to distinguish the actantial model as a conceptual network from its visual representation. The conceptual network is generally depicted as a diagram, given in formats like the following:

The actantial model represented as a square

Sender

------------------

Object

----------------->

Receiver

 

 

Fleche Haut

 

 

Helper

----------------->

Subject

<-----------------

Opponent

We have developed a table format, where we have included the additions that we are proposing (explanation to come later) to the standard actantial model:

The actantial model represented in table format

time

observing subject

actant name

actant class: s/o, send/rec, help/opp

actant sub-class factual/possible narrative programs

actant sub-class true/false

other actant sub-classes (for ex., active/passive)

JUSTIFICATION, COMMENT

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since the actantial model and the visual representation thereof are two different things, a single diagram may be used to combine several actantial models, each of which refers to a different action or reflects a subsequent state of the same model.

2.5 CHARACTER / NON-CHARACTER ACTANTS

An actant does not always correspond to a character in the traditional sense of the term. From a simple ontological perspective (which defines what kinds of beings, broadly speaking, make up reality), an actant may correspond to: (1) an anthropomorphic being (for example, a human, an animal or a talking sword, etc.); (2) a concrete, inanimate element, including things (for example, a sword), although not limited to the concrete (for example, the wind, the distance to be travelled), (3) a concept (courage, hope, freedom, etc.). An actant may be individual or collective (for example, society).

2.6 ACTANTIAL SYNCRETISM

A single element may be found in one, several, or even all actantial classes. Actantial syncretism occurs when a single element, known as an actor (such as a character in the traditional sense of the word), "contains" several actants from different classes (for example, subject and helper simultaneously) or several actants from the same class that have separate actions in the analysis.

In order to keep the analysis homogeneous, subjects and objects usually contain only one element (although there can be collectives). Indeed, it is best to distinguish subjects clearly from each other and objects clearly from each other, even if they are closely related, in order to draw distinctions in the descriptions (for example, in the extreme case where two allied subjects who want the same object have all the same helpers except one).

2.7 THE OBSERVING SUBJECT

Actantial description must account for observing subjects that act to integrate elements into the actantial classes (and into the actantial sub-classes, as we will see later). Classification is generally based on the reference observing subject, the one associated with the ultimate truth of the text (usually the narrator, especially if he is omniscient); but we might also assume the point of view of another observer. This would be called an “assumptive observer”, meaning his classifications may be refuted by the reference observer. For example, an observer character (an assumptive observing subject) may believe, wrongly or rightly according to the narrator (the reference observing subject), that a certain character is a helper in a certain action. As we can see, a distinction may be made between true and false actants.

2.8 TIME OF OBSERVATION

Classifications tend to vary depending not just on the observers, but also as a function of time. There are several kinds of time, or temporality: historical time (the chronological order of events in the story), narrative time (the order in which events of the story are presented), and tactical time (the linear sequencing of semantic units, for example, from one sentence to the next). To illustrate, there are cases where a helper goes further ahead in time in the story than an opponent, and vice versa. In summary, over time actants may integrate, leave the actantial model or change classes (or sub-classes).

2.9 ACTANTIAL SUB-CLASSES

Earlier we mentioned a distinction between true and false actants. Let us now look at some other actantial sub-classes in order to refine our analysis.

2.9.1 ACTANT/NON-ACTANT, FACTUAL/POSSIBLE ACTANTS

The actant/non-actant distinction is related to the issue of factual vs. possible actants (based on ontological status) and active vs. passive actants. A friend who could have (and should have) helped but did not may be classified at Time 1 not as an opponent, but as a non-helper (a type of non-actant) or as a possible helper (a type of possible actant) who did not become a factual helper (a type of factual actant) as he should have at Time 2.

2.9.2 ACTIVE/PASSIVE ACTANTS

We shall now consider the distinction between active and passive actants. It is one thing not to help a person who is drowning (the non-action is what causes harm); it is quite another to hold his head under water (the action is what causes harm). In the first case, we may call this character (1) a non-helper (a type of non-actant), or (2) a possible but unactualized helper (a type of possible actant that will not become factual), or yet again (3) a passive opponent (a type of passive actant). In the second case, he may be (1) a possible but unactualized helper (a type of possible actant that will not become factual) or (2) an active opponent (a type of active actant), which is undoubtedly a more adequate description. A being need not be anthropomorphic in order to be classified as passive/active: an alarm that does not go off when it should, thus allowing a robbery to occur, is a passive helper.

2.9.3 INTENTIONAL/UNINTENTIONAL ACTANTS

An anthropomorphic actant will play its role either intentionally or unintentionally. Thus, a character may not know that he is a helper, sender, etc. relative to a certain action.

2.9.4 ACTANTS: THE WHOLE VERSUS THE PARTS

Actantial analysis makes use of the opposition between the whole and its parts. Thus, it is more accurate to say that the prince's courage is a helper in his own cause than to state that the prince is generally a helper. Otherwise stated: An analysis done at the level of the parts helps to reveal the differences that emerge between a description of the whole and that of its parts. For example, it could reveal that the Prince, who is primarily a helper in his own cause, also harbours characteristics that act as opponents (for example, if he is a tiny bit lazy).

3. APPLICATION: JESUS SAVES MANKIND

Let us use the New Testament for the sake of application. We shall have to simplify the analysis by focusing primarily on the anthropomorphic actants, which provide abundant and complex subject matter from both literary and theological perspectives. As we shall see, we can identify and describe several theological issues using the actantial model and integrate them into a scheme.

3.1 SUBJECT AND OBJECT

Let us take the primary actantial model of the New Testament, wherein Jesus must save mankind.

3.2 SENDERS

The senders in our model are the following:

  • God, who sends his only son for this purpose.
  • Jesus, who we can assume has a "personal" desire to save mankind in addition to the duty imposed by God.
  • Mankind, which is hoping and yearning for the coming of Christ. One could say that the "believers" are intentional senders and that the others are unintentional senders (their souls, although mute, yearn for salvation).

3.3 RECEIVERS

If one interprets the receiver as the element that benefits from the desired junction between subject and object, mankind is clearly the receiver of the action. What about God and Jesus? Here a theological problem arises. Two points argue in favour of excluding these characters as receivers. For one thing, if that which is perfect neither needs nor benefits from anything whatsoever, then God and Jesus, who were conceived as perfect, cannot be receivers. For another, in Christian ideology, the best "good deed", if we may say, is one for which the subject receives no personal benefit. We shall say that a Christ-like action - and the instincts that God gave him as a sender - must be completely altruistic.

3.4 HELPERS AND OPPONENTS

In order to sort out the helpers and opponents in this actantial model, we must distinguish between several important and related actions, meaning that these actions will form a set of actantial models. In order to obtain salvation for mankind, Jesus must rise from the dead; in order to rise from the dead, he must die, or more accurately, be executed; in order to be executed, he must be arrested and judged. (We shall interrupt the chain of actions here; obviously, in order for this series of actions to occur, Jesus must be born among men.) For our analysis, we shall select the following three actions: (1) Jesus is arrested and crucified; (2) Jesus rises from the dead; (3) Jesus saves mankind. The third action presupposes the second, which presupposes the first. The first and second actions are sequential in time, while the second and third are simultaneous.

As helper characters in action 1, we have: Judas, who sells Jesus; the judges; the people, who choose to liberate Barabbas rather than Jesus; and the soldiers, who carry out Jesus' arrest and execution. The opponent characters seem to be fleeting and fewer in number: the apostles do try to oppose Jesus' arrest, but none of them intervenes directly during the trial (Peter shirks this role with his denial) or the crucifixion. In short, the possible opponents just don't turn into factual opponents. Pontius Pilate, who refuses either to condemn or liberate Jesus - by washing his hands of the matter -, thus refuses to occupy any position on the helper/opponent axis. He plays the role of a non-helper-non-opponent. Seen in a different light, one could say that by not intervening, he promotes the harsher course - in this case, Jesus' death - making him a passive helper. As for Jesus, he falls more clearly under the passive helper class: he actually asks the apostles to stop resisting his arrest; and he does not defend himself directly before the judges. On the cross, he has a "moment of weakness", in keeping with his half-human, half-divine nature, and laments the fate in store for him; but he does not interfere personally with that fate (and perhaps at that point he has been deprived of his ability to perform miracles). However, Jesus appeals to his father to take this cup from him, thereby asking God to be an opponent to his death. Lastly, let us assume that Satan knows the divine plan (even if the ways of God are said to be impenetrable, at least for mortals), and has every interest in seeing Jesus diverted from his action and not dying; he also tempted Jesus in the wilderness to divert him from his destiny.

As concerns action 2, the helper characters are God and Jesus, or God alone if it is only by his power that his son rises from the dead. There are no opponent characters that appear directly, although Satan, the general enemy, would interfere in the completion of the miracle if he could. One non-character opponent is fundamental here: matter, which by its very nature resists the breaking of a rule that generally tolerates no exceptions. That which is dead cannot rise again.

Now we come back to action 3. This is a cumulative action, resulting from the outcome of a series of actions. The most important of these are: the birth of Jesus as a man, his death and his resurrection. In this light, any helper or opponent for one of the crucial actions is also a helper or opponent for the cumulative action. This produces astounding results from a theological point of view: Judas is indeed a helper, and Satan was inconsistent and ill advised when he gave Judas the idea of betraying Jesus by turning him over to the law… However that may be, even disregarding this point of the analysis, we can say that the main helper and opponent characters are God and Jesus on the one hand, and Satan on the other. The actantial model thus takes on a primarily metaphysical dimension, with human characters who intervene only as senders and receivers. However, their role will become crucial in the model of individual salvation: with collective salvation ensured by the redemption Jesus offers, it is now up to each man to "earn his way to heaven" through his good deeds - help yourself and heaven will help you - and by divine grace. In order to accomplish this, the role of the apostles is a major one: they announce the good news of redemption, they remind us of the purpose of individual salvation, and through the Bible they show by their example and their teaching the way to salvation.

The following table gives an overview of the helper and opponent characters associated with action 3.

Actantial Model of the New Testament's Primary Action

ACTANT

ACTANT CLASS

ACTANT SUB-CLASS

01

God

sender

 

02

Jesus

sender

 

03

mankind

senders

intentional (believers) and unintentional (non-believers)

04

mankind

receivers

intentional (believers) and unintentional (non-believers)

05

God

helper

 

06

Jesus

helper

 

07

Satan

opponent

 

4. LIST OF WORKS CITED

GREIMAS, A. J., Sémantique structurale, Paris: Presse universitaires de France, 1986 [1966].
PROPP, V., Morphologie du conte, Paris: Seuil, 1970.

5. EXERCISE

A. Put the name of the actantial function most clearly associated with the words before the parentheses. There is only one answer in each case. All six functions are represented.

Paul (______________) asks Mary (______________) to use her charm (______________) to obtain some information (______________) concealed by Peter (______________), and which Paul (______________) can sell at a high price.

B. Formulate the actantial model for the following actions:
  1. A student wants to obtain a diploma.
  2. A separatist wants independence for Quebec.
  3. Aesop's fable, "The Tortoise and the Hare"
C. Formulate the actantial model for "The Black Spot" by Gérard de Nerval (1852), with the narrator (I) as the subject and happiness as the object.

"The Black Spot"

Whoever has gazed intently upon the sun
believes he sees floating persistently
all around him a livid spot.

So did I, in my more audacious youth,
Dare to fix my eyes a moment on glory:
and a black spot lay trapped in my eager gaze.

Ever since, mingled with everything like a sign of mourning,
Wherever my eyes rest, the black spot comes to rest, too!
What, forever? Always between me and happiness! Woe unto us,
For only the eagle can gaze with impunity upon the Sun and Glory.

Adapted from James Kirkup's translation (2001), http://www.brindin.com/pfnerpoi.htm


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